In our flashy, ultra-modern kitchens we can sometimes forget that in pre-historic times the chef’s most difficult job was not cooking, but killing the creature he wanted to cook. Even until some decades ago some traditional restaurants in Europe still killed some of their chickens or other animals on the spot. For the most part that is no longer practicable for convenience and hygiene reasons.
But has this changed the nature of cooking and even its worth? Thomas Keller, the chef-owner of the celebrated French Laundry in California, wrote in his book a story from his early days as a chef about this: he decided to put rabbit on the menu and the guy who brought him the rabbits showed him to kill them. After killing a couple he went off and left Thomas Keller to deal with the others. Though he had been a chef for years he had never done something like that – the first few he bungled it and the rabbits squeaked horribly, fell from his hands, broke their legs, and didn’t die very promptly.
Though that wasn’t pleasant, that night he cooked those rabbits to perfection, because after having to kill them he wasn’t going to overcook them.
My own first experience with dealing a live beast destined for the pot was at school, when our teacher decided we should do eel. He came from France and there eels are considered a delicacy. They are sure to become even more of a delicacy, since in the last 30 years their stocks in Europe have fallen by more than 90%.
Anyway, he explained that the eel must be eaten very fresh and so were going to have to kill it. When the eel that had come in from the supplier that morning was brought even he was astounded – "That’s a very big eel," he said, "Haven’t seen one that size in years." The method, he explained, was to bash its head, nail it up and then skin it from the neck down. However, the blow wasn’t strong enough I guess, so that when he tried to nail it up it escaped and got loose in the room.
Soon it was he and 20 students trying to bring it under control – but eels have a very thick layer of slime, much more than any fish, so it just slithered through countless hands. It was a half-hour before it was finally dead.
We laughed our asses off but that stayed with me – it made cooking a bit more real somehow. Later I was taught a much better way of dealing with eels – put it in a bucket and sprinkle lots of salt on it, and it is very soon dead.
In England, where I was studying, eels where usually eaten jellied in a pie. I never much liked that, but later was lucky to try a simple eel stew with tomato and rosemary in a small fishing town that made me think it was worth half an hour of battling a ferocious eel.